A day of action against Hyatt

July 29, 2010

"FIVE STAR hotel, one star pay!" That's what Joe, a doorman at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Chicago, had to say about his employer when he risked arrest by blocking traffic on a busy downtown street alongside more than 200 Hyatt workers and their allies.

The civil disobedience was part of a coordinated series of actions organized nationwide on July 22 by UNITE HERE as contracts for 45,000 hotel workers in 10 cities nationwide near a common expiration date. The demonstrations took place in more than a dozen cities, from San Diego to Boston, and points in between. The protests targeted the Hyatt hotel chain, which has advanced unreasonable demands in ongoing negotiations, the union says.

Annemarie Strassel, UNITE HERE Local 1's spokesperson, explained that the hotel is taking advantage of the recession to force through a 5-year contract, with cuts in benefits and little room for raises. This this is happening against the background of a rebound in the hotel industry--Hyatt is pulling in billions in profits.

The Hyatt Regency doorman Joe described his plight: "I can't live on $7.96 per hour. They say that I make tips, but these are tough times, and people don't tip the way they used to. And Patrick Donelley [the manager of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago] got a $600,000 bonus last year."

According to UNITE HERE, attempts by Hyatt locally and nationally to force through unfair contracts fit a pattern in the hotel industry, which rebounds from periods of economic downturn by using recessions as an excuse to force down wages, reduce benefits and cut jobs.

Analysts for Smith Travel Research report that occupancy in luxury hotels has increased 7-10 percent in the first quarter of 2010. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the industry fell during the first quarter--and is projected to keep falling, despite rising revenues.

The clear contrast between poverty wages for hotel workers and big profits for their employers helped draw a large crowd to the July 22 protests around the country.

In Chicago, the sidewalks near the civil disobedience were lined with more than 1,000 supporters. Workers from other hotels and unions, and activists from many different movements were present in a remarkable display of solidarity.

Jose, an immigrant rights activist, explained why he was at the demonstration: "My father is a worker at the Congress hotel, and he has been on strike for 10 years. It's important for the labor movement to support immigrant rights and for immigrant rights activists to support the labor movement, because immigrant rights are workers' rights."

The management of the hotel observed the action from behind a wall of private security, just in front of signs on the lawn reading, "We appreciate our associates." Joe found the signs absurd and insulting. "If they're so thankful for us for making it a great workplace," he asked, "why don't they pay us?"

In San Diego, UNITE HERE Local 30 picketed the newly opened nonunion Andaz Hotel in the tourist-centered Gaslamp District as part of the July 22 day of action.

More than 250 union members and supporters, according to the union's estimate, set up a picket line in front of the hotel. Marching between the hotel entrance and a row of charter buses hired by management to block the protest's visibility from pedestrians and motorists, the picketers filled the air with their chants, in both English and Spanish.

In a planned act of civil disobedience, 10 protesters sat down and linked arms in front of the main entrance, blocking entry to the hotel. As security guards directed people to other entrances, these too were blocked by sit-downers. There were no arrests, however, and the protesters then moved to the street, forming a human chain and stopping traffic. Again, there were no arrests, and the street filled with marchers for a final rally.

Picketers included hotel workers, some in their bright red UNITE HERE T-shirts, others in work uniforms, who had come from work at nearby hotels.

They were joined by boycott supporters from "Sleep with the Right People," an LGBT group, which is opposing Hyatt boss Doug Manchester for his stance against marriage equality in California. Supporters from other unions also joined in--Teamsters in black tees, retail food workers from the UFCW in yellow, and AFSCME in green.

Calling Hyatt "the most vicious anti-worker company that we deal with," Local 30 President Brigette Browning said:

We want Hyatt to know that if there is an attack on our co-workers in Los Angeles, in San Francisco and in Hawaii, then we are going to picket the Hyatt, because we are not going to stand by and let them take away workers' health care and decrease wages all across the country, and not do anything about it...

We hope that Hyatt wakes up and smells the coffee and does the right thing for its workers.

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